At GDC China, Independent Games Festival chairman Simon Carless delivered an informative overview of the Western independent games movement aimed at cluing the Chinese audience in on what's necessary and what works; useful information in any country.
The IGF Chairman -- who is also publisher of Gamasutra -- described the talk as showcasing "market trends and methods for success -- things I think you should be doing... and what's working in the West."
Carless started his talk by trying to define "indie" for the audience. He says that indie games often showcase "unique mechanics that develop a following of their own", and as of 2009, has "turned into something of a movement, and people are excited about independent games."
When it comes to indie games, says Carless, "We tend to talk about three or five person developed titles... as opposed to Facebook games, but there are a lot of people making Facebook or casual games in the sense that they're an independent developer; that's why the definition is hazy."
While these teams are indies in the strict sense of independent developers, "what people tend to get excited about in the West is a different style of game," says Carless. His first of four example videos was 2D Boy's IGF winner World of Goo.
Trends in the Indie Space
What are some of the exciting trends "that are making it an exciting time for independent games" in the West right now? Carless noted that the slowdown in PC retail publishing has opened a window for indie games in that platform, when coupled with robust distribution through the web or services like Valve's Steam.
However, another incipient trend is funding through preorders -- notably, IGF winner Cortex Command uses this method. Says Carless, "this is very interesting because you don't have to finish your game to start collecting money from people. The developer can learn a living through the game, but the game is not complete."
Another exciting trend, says Carless, is the "acceptance of games that are more exploration-based, and less game-like." Games like IGF winner Blueberry Garden do not have discrete game-like goals, but instead function as interactive toys. "As the market is broadening, people are starting to accept alternative styles of game, and that's exciting," says Carless.
Another important trend is toward rapid prototyping -- "where a developer makes a game a week, or a game a month," says Carless. These titles can "end up being converted into popular games" such as IGF winners Audiosurf and Crayon Physics Deluxe.
Though he didn't but touch on the topic briefly, Carless notes that developing for virality is becoming increasingly important, but warns that "as a game mechanic is very different to traditional game mechanics... it's making sure many friends know about what you're playing as quickly as possible."
He then showed a video of The Behemoth's Castle Crashers, which he describes as "a good example of a modern indie title that was successful because it has its own style." Though it presents classic beat 'em up gameplay, it does it in a new way -- and has become a huge success.
Mistakes to Avoid
There are mistakes to be made when developing indie games, however, Carless warns. When considering what console to develop for "you need to carefully consider which is the most connected," he says. "The Xbox dashboard doesn't feel complete unless you're connected to the internet." Conversely, however, he warns that the Wii Shop Channel is just one icon in a field of other icons, and many users may be indifferent to its existence.
That's not the biggest problem, however, Carless warns. "I think the biggest mistake you can make on a console downloadable service is putting 15 people on a project. If you look at the quality of some of the games that have been produced by three or four people, those games can easily be the equal of the game that's made by 10 or 15 people. If you scale your team correctly, you'll have a much greater chance to make your money back."
Another major issue is sticking with a single platform, or a single idea, which can handicap you in the end, says Carless. "You shouldn't think of the market as monolithic, and there's only one platform you can go to."
Define Your Identity!
Carless is adamant that indie developers need to build an identity with their audience to succeed. "One of the most important things that all game developers can learn right now, as we're taking control of our relationship with the end user," says Carless.
"Maybe before if you had a publisher, you'd allow your publisher to tell you how to market the game and outreach to the community. But now you are the person who defines your brand and your games. it's really important to define yourself and have a public image and understand that people want to know about you. If you're making the right kind of games, people want to know about you as a person."
Says Carless, the most successful independent developers in the West "go far beyond" simple promotion of their titles: "They let people know who they are and why you should care about them."
What are the important ingredients for promotion, in his opinion?
- Company name. Something understandable, catchy, or clever.
- What you're renowned for. Says Carless, "You need to be known for something; you need to have a particular specialty." For example, with Q-Games' Pixeljunk series, "You know what you're getting to a certain extent."
- What's your story? While Carless notes that in the past "the game is all you need to know," your personal story is relevant to building interest in your game, "and maybe people are inspired and interested by it."
- Mission statement. "This doesn't necessarily have to be an external mission statement. But when you start your small developer you need to know what you're going to do." When it comes to this, "you need to stick to it or you need to reevaluate it carefully," says Carless
- A spokesperson or personality. Noting that "this is perhaps a little controversial", because that person may leave and take your brand equity with him, Carless points to people like Splash Damage's Paul Wedgwood, "who is a very enthusiastic personality who embodies his developer", and Stardock's Brad Wardell, who is "forthright and honest" with the audience.
Finding the Fans
In a related issue, Carless describes how developers connect with their fans. "You need to make a presence of your own," warns Carless. An issue in the casual games space is that distributors take a developer's audience, "and their audience will not know who you are."
It's never too early to make a website, says Carless, "even before you have your game announced." Many developers, he says, make the mistake that "they're so busy making their game that they finish their game, and say 'I guess we'd better talk about it now,' but at that point you're too far down the curve." You must set up a blog, says Carless, with RSS feed, and a forum for your users to talk in -- even two years out from release, if possible.
And "you need to spend time making it interesting," says Carless. "Take control of your own destiny as a company." If you're not ready to share game details, "if you have some interesting thoughts about the industry... just talk about those." For example, says Carless, "if you care about something, like piracy, and you have something intelligent to say... even if you only post it on your own blog, you're really helping people start to identify with you."
Social networking is also crucial, he says. "Whatever way people are communicating on a daily basis, you have to be there and you have to be communicating with them." And make sure you're "actually interacting with people who message you," not just spamming PR.
Video of your game "is really important" for building interest; it's "a great way to show off your title", says Carless. While many developers fear putting up early videos, "if you make it clear to the community that it's an early version, they'll appreciate seeing that," he says.
Picking the right person to interact with the community is also key, says Carless. "Whoever is communicating should ideally be the people who are making the game," since "users want to know about the game from the people who make them." However, if you don't have time or are otherwise disinclined, you can recruit an enthusiastic community member -- "don't be afraid to use your fans to help you." Connectivity with gamers "really ends up differentiating games that are great but didn't sell a lot of copies" from the huge hits, says Carless.
Externally speaking, picking the right sites to promote your game on is crucial. Research and pitch personally to the editors -- "the people who run those sites are interested gamers. Just as the personal touch is important when talking to the end user, it's as important when talking to editors, and influencers -- people who can make your game successful."
And don't forget traditional press methods, either. "Although I've been talking about much more informal messaging, it's worth doing press releases," says Carless, who also suggests that you should only do them for milestones, or other particularly important stages of development. However, they are "surprisingly important."
"Entering festivals and showcases is a really good idea," says the Independent Games Festival chairman. "You should enter everything you can because those showcases -- not just the IGF -- really help you with press and publisher contacts," as well as getting your game in front of an audience.
Embrace Your Peers
Of course, building a relationship with your developer peers is also important. "Participating in the community is an important way to get yourself known," says Carless. Developer mailing lists and discussion forums where you share tips are useful in many ways, and "you can also cross-promote" if you find a like-minded developer. Carless believes you should also share useful info on blogs.
Carless notes that "at the latest PAX, there were about 70,000 people there and there were a number of independent developers who had bought their own stand there," as a way to get in front of gamers. Says Carless, "more and more we'll see things like this." He also recommends speaking at conferences as a way to raise your profile and make contacts.
Making games for competitions, like Game Jams, is a good way to get involved with the development community. He notes, "In the U.S. and Europe there are a lot of competitions now, 48 hour competitions or longer, where you can compete and make a themed game."
Where's the Money?
Of course, funding is a major issue in indie development. "Self-funding is clearly exciting for everyone because with self-funding you do have ultimate control," says Carless. And with that method, "preorders are definitely the hidden weapon right now."
Local and national government grants "that are increasingly specific to digital download and indie games" are also an increasingly popular choice. On the other hand, total publisher deals "definitely mitigate risk," says Carless. "If you can get signed by a publisher they're going to pay you to complete [your game], which is great, but if it's a hit, you're going to get a lower percentage" of the profits -- so be careful.
If you do go it alone, and publish to console platforms, you must be aware of hidden costs - localization, testing, regional submissions, and ESRB and other regional ratings can pile on the costs, says Carless. Regional PC distribution deals can also be problematic, says Carless. "It's worth considering that if you have a game someone wants to license for, say, the Russian market, they might give you cash up front but it may limit your ability to release it worldwide later."
However, in general, digital distribution on PC has "no downside," says Carless. He notes that 2D Boy's World of Goo costs $20 on their own website, but there's a $7 casual version on BigFish -- and that the creators report "no cannibalization because it's a different market, different people."
A Bit of Business
Carless warns that scope is "the number one problem with independent studios right now." He encourages you to take your initial time estimate and double it -- and that polish is what separates a good game from a great one.
If you make one game, says Carless "you can get stuck having to release your game because you run out of money," so be careful. "It's not preferable to have one title you've worked on for a long time that's only released on one platform, because then you have a high degree of danger."
Carless notes that Australian iPhone developer Firemint released both Flight Control and Real Racing -- very differently sized games -- to success. But one could have perhaps helped offset the other if they had not both been popular.
He also recommends building publisher relationships: "My biggest concern about independent games is that we don't want to get into a boom and bust area where everybody tries to make their big game with no backup and all of the companies go out of business."
He thinks independent visions are fantastic, but worries that blind creation may not be enough "I think a lot of independents will go and make the dream game they want to go make, which is great, but you still want to at least look and make sure that there is not a massive game you didn't know about that uses similar mechanics and is already popular."
When it comes to post-release, there are plenty of things to consider. "It's very rare that making a demo is negative," says Carless, but "you really want to be careful about how much you give away, and what part of the game," as a bad demo can reflect poorly; one that's too open can cannibalize sales.
"The internet is worldwide, so you really need to try as best you can to release your game in all territories on the same day," says Carless. He also notes that if you build up a fan base, you can use them for localization -- "and [some developers] say it works better than hiring localization companies, sometimes."
Developers who intend to self release also have to be sure to build an infrastructure for issues like processing payment, issuing refunds, and delivering promo copies to reviewers. When it comes to downloadable content, "it helps with publicity, but the consensus is that it is not a big profit maker, and you have to watch complaints [from users] about 'Why didn't I get it in the first place?'"
The Definition of Indie
Carless returned to the issue of defining what "indie" means, noting "this is a problem --people have a lot of arguments about this." Referring to his slide, he says, "The only thing i've put in bold is 'intentionality'. A lot of popular indies are making the game they want to make."
Some bullet points that seem to define the notable indies these days are:
- Retro games, or games that capitalize on existing concepts.
- Growing your company is not your goal.
- Developing games that make you feel strong emotions, or subvert the medium.
- It's okay to make games for free if you can make a business model later.
- It's okay to say you're an indie and you need support.
What makes indie games... indie games, Carless concluded? His opinion? They're often small titles that "fit well with busy gamers' lifestyles." They look different -- "they're stylish and a good alternative" to major packaged console and PC releases.
They offer clever gameplay, with unexpected conceptual twists. They're easy, fun, and thought-provoking to play. And importantly, they feel like they've been produced by individuals, not large teams.